The Allure Of Caucasus Region - Exploring Svaneti
January 1, 1970
by Nini Gorgiashvili
If you are interested in visiting the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe – Ushguli and experiencing the ancient Georgian culture this article is just for you! Even before starting your trip, keep in mind, you are already a member of a huge Georgian family.
Preserved by its long isolation, upper lands of Georgia’s alpine region of Svaneti were recognized by UNESCO as an “exceptional example of mountain scenery with medieval-type villages and tower-houses”. When someone recalls Svaneti, the first thing that comes to my mind is “Koshki” (emblem of the region). These defensive and living stone towers were mainly constructed in the 9th-12th centuries.
The Ushguli community still has more than 200 of these stone towers. The towers have protected the region from many invasions; even during the Soviet period, it remained untouchable. Some families still live in such “Koshks” and use the upper floors for storing crops.
The mystery and spiritual value of this culture are deeply rooted in Svans (inhabitants of Svaneti) and continued living in harmony with the surrounding natural environment. With their own language (distinct from Georgian) and their own ancient traditions (including blood revenge), Svans have always been a proudly independent people.
Things to do in Svaneti
Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography
Frankly speaking, I am not the one, who values museums, but I really felt amazed by the uniqueness of the presented masterpieces. The museum ranges over manuscripts from the 9th-18th centuries, church treasures, weaponry, jewellery, musical instruments, holy handwritten books and “Svanetian” domestic items. All are well displayed and labelled in English and Georgian. Do not forget to get to the roof of the museum and take a deep breath from the awesome top view of the spectacular town of Mestia.
Khatsvali Ski Resort
Is located 9 km from Mestia. From there, enjoy a leisurely ride on the cable cars ($2 return) up to the top of Zuruldi cafe, where you can enjoy a drink and epic views of the mount Ushba. By the way, I recommend doing Surya Namaskara (sun salutation) – for welcoming the unforgettable sunrise ?
Ski Resort Tetnuldi
A dream for the discerning travellers and experienced skiers. You may ask, Why?? Because it is a realm of snow and a realm of remoteness and emotions between mountainous rivers. Here is no housing, better to stay in Mestia (15 km). See in detail here.
As I’ve mentioned, Ushguli is Europe’s Highest permanent settlement (2060-2200m). It is located 50 km from Mestia at the foot of Shkhara summit (one of the highest in Georgia, 5193m). There are mini busses and also private rides that go to Ushguli around the Mestia Park. For the minibuses, the price is $15-20 per person, return. For the private taxi, the price is $70-80 per car. Because of road-reconstructing, the trip takes about 2.5-3 hours from Mestia (45km). There are equally several decent homestays if you wish to stay after a long day of trekking. There you should try appetizing traditional Svan food “Kubdari” because it tastes much delicious near the spectacular Shkhara.
You can hike to the glacier from where the Enguri (main national energy producer in Georgia) river starts. If you hire a jeep from Mestia to Ushguli ask them to include glacier visit in the price. Hiking the glacier (6 hours to and back) will hook your attention by the magnificent views of the summit.
The best place to start from is the town of Mestia (11 km). Depending on the conditions the whole trip should take 6-8 hours. You can take a taxi to the bridge in the upper part of the valley or support yourself with a horseback. In such case, a walk takes about 1,5 hours. Can you imagine walking on the ice shelf? Yes, it sounds exciting! Actually, you can even watch the water emerge from underneath it!
Enguri Hydro Power Plant
Is located at North of the town of Jvari. Currently, 271.5 metres high arc dam is the second highest arc in the world. Besides its main purpose, the power station represents one of the breathtaking views of the Enguri river.
What to eat in Svaneti?
There are a plethora of unknown Georgian dishes that will fill you with amazement. The Svan cuisine is a true paradise for gourmets and spices-lovers. You should taste the domestic “Chvishtari” – cheese baked in corn flour and “Kubdari” – bread full of meat (pork and beef), aromatic herbs, spices and onions. Everything acquires a different taste after having been baked in a Svan oven. Furthermore, local, natural products are the ones which give unique taste and aroma to every Georgian dish.
In every Svan family, you will find the Svan salt, which is a traditional spicy salt blend. Consequently, like Indian cuisine, many traditional Georgian dishes use coriander, pepper, garlic and other spicy spices. If you want spices-free dish, taste Tashmijab – cream of potatoes and cheese mixed with corn flour. You will find local food much more appetizing, especially after a long wild trekking.
How about the climate in Svaneti?
I will describe Svaneti as a winter-wonderland and summer-paradise, with very changeable climate. Most locals will tell you that the weather forecast is not always entirely reliable. Majestic mountains and spectacular scenery make Svaneti a wonderful place for nature lovers in July and August. Skii-lovers would be attracted by skiing beside the slopes of Mountain Tetnuldi (4858 metres high).
How to get to Mestia?
- By the plane – Natakhtari Airport to Mestia (and vice versa) cost $30. Keep in mind to book in advance (3-4 weeks before). See more here.
- Take a “Marshrutka” – Tbilisi to Mestia (uncomfortable eight-hour drive is worth for the experience). Buses depart from a bus station near Tbilisi central Railway station starting from 5:30 – 6:00 AM. Ticket price: about $20.
- Train – The cheapest and hassle-free option is a daily train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi. Ticket price: about $4-9. Then get a night train to catch a mini-bus from Zugdidi to Mestia.
- Batumi to Mestia by bus – takes approximately 6 hours, price $15. These are generally minibuses that you can book (leaving early morning or mid-afternoon).
- Private jeeps from Mestia to Ushguli for 4-6 persons costs $70-90 for a return trip.
- Note: Avoid taxis from Tbilisi, it’s overpriced.
Where to stay in Svaneti?
Obviously, Mestia is a perfect location to stay during your trip in Svaneti. The is full of Guesthouses, price range per night: $20-100. You can easily find a calm room or a whole cottage and book in advance. Marina Guest House is highly recommended for its affordable price, location and hospitality. You will also find tiny clean rooms in Ushguli village.